CLEMSON, S.C. -- In the aftermath of Wednesday’s frenzy at the fax machine, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was asked where the biggest need for his team had been on national signing day.
Swinney went broad.
“Defense,” he said.
The Tigers’ D was No. 1 in the nation two years ago, then led them to the national championship game in 2015, but it’s a unit that has seen its share of attrition. All of that talent is prized by the NFL, so signing day was Clemson’s chance to restock the cupboard.
Swinney noted the importance of finding a replacement for linebacker B.J. Goodson and the struggles defensive coordinator Brent Venables will have developing pass-rushers to match Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson.
But even before Wednesday’s festivities kicked off, Swinney was pretty happy with the recruits coming in to fill those voids. In the secondary, however -- where Clemson lost three-quarters of its starters to early departures for the NFL draft -- things were a bit more murky.
Enter Trayvon Mullen.
The hotshot cornerback from Pompano Beach, Florida, was prized by LSU and Florida State, among others, and Clemson came late to the party. Still, when it came time for Mullen to announce his decision, he wanted to play for the (Clemson) Tigers.
Swinney noted that safety Jayron Kearse decided just before the national championship game that he was leaving early for the NFL, and Mackensie Alexander and T.J. Green didn’t inform Swinney of their plans until a few days after the game. Nickel Travis Blanks also departed early for the draft. That left the Tigers scrambling, but they finished strong.
“The biggest thing was the situation at DB,” Swinney said. “We were pretty much done with our recruiting class until we had the attrition in the secondary. That was the game-changer for us, and it was huge to go get Trayvon Mullen.”
Rated the No. 2 corner in the nation by ESPN, Mullen is 6-foot-3 — bigger than the departing Alexander — and has exceptional athleticism, making him a perfect fit for Venables’ scheme. But it wasn’t the scheme that landed him, Swinney said. It was Clemson’s brand.
“We had to hit the ground running to go get it done in January,” Swinney said, “and the thing that’s unique is that we were able to say, OK, who are the best guys out there, and make some calls, and people were interested. That’s a credit to the strength of our brand to get these guys on campus. The strength of our brand allowed us to finish like we needed to.”
The secondary still figures to see plenty of competition this spring and into fall camp. In addition to Mullen, Clemson signed Isaiah Simmons out of Kansas and Nolan Turner from Alabama, and the Tigers brought in Brian Dawkins Jr.
Swinney said he expects senior Jadar Johnson and sophomore Van Smith to open spring as the starters at safety, and Cordrea Tankersley returns at one of the corner spots. The door is open for Mullen to nail down the other spot, however, and his addition to a haul that put Clemson squarely among the top 10 classes in the nation Wednesday was icing on an already-rich cake.